Digital History Meets the Environmental Movement

As somebody who started his university studies BG [Before Google] I’ve often thought about the ways technology has made so many of my tasks easier to accomplish. Last week I was revising a section of my dissertation that discusses Pollution Probe’s role in inspiring affiliate groups across the country. The old Probe Newsletter made plenty of references to these groups across Ontario, and in my studies I’ve come across some materials related to the Winnipeg affiliate. I’ve also heard references to a Pollution Probe in Moncton, but never came across any written material on the subject.

In the grand scheme of things this group won’t amount to much more than a passing reference in my dissertation. That said, as somebody interested in the broader development of environmental activism in Canada, I was curious to find out when the group developed, what inspired its founder(s), what issues they addressed, and why they chose to adopt the Pollution Probe name rather than starting with something fresh. As such, I did what comes naturally these days … I sent an email to someone I figured may have an answer.

Mark McLaughlin is a PhD student in History at the University of New Brunswick. I’ve exchanged some emails with Mark in the past concerning his work – he’s looking at forestry in New Brunswick, and has a chapter that looks at its role in the development of environmentalism in the province. When I met Mark at a conference this summer the Pollution Probe affiliate in Moncton came up. Figuring he might have some information on its founding I sent him an email. Turns out he didn’t have an answer, but was just as curious as me. He hit the library, searching through the indexes of The Daily Gleaner and a number of other sources. Not much came out of it. The next day he hit the provincial archives and the legislative library. No dice. However, he sent an email to David Coon at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, who suggested he contact Anne Ottow, one of its former members. When Mark forwarded this name to me I immediately did a search in Google Books and came up with this link, which shows that the group was founded in 1970. Mark subsequently tracked down Ottow’s phone number using an online directory and gave her a call to find out some more information about the group. He then forwarded me the Reader’s Digest version.

So, what’s the lesson here? Sure, online collaboration is great. To be able to track down all this information in a matter of days without leaving my home in London, Ontario is pretty dandy, not to mention cost efficient. What really struck me, however, was that I probably never would have bothered to have gone looking for this particular information in a pre-email age. Would I have written Mark a letter and waited for a response? I highly doubt it.

Thanks again to Mark for all the help on his side.

Ed. note: Since posting this I have come across evidence of a Pollution Probe affiliate in Regina, appropriately named 'Pollution Probe Regina', operating in 1971. That's the most western of the affiliates I've tracked down.